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Category Archives: Sonoma

Bayside Panzanella

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Last summer I took my family to Hog Island for the first time. The event was part of a week-long thirtieth birthday celebration, and I had made the reservation months in advance (as one needs to). None of them really knew what they were getting into but they knew there were oysters involved and that’s all that really mattered at the time. Since my family hadn’t yet moved to Northern California, they were visiting from New York and they rented a minivan for the week. So my parents and I, my brother, his girlfriend (Hillz) and her sister (Livy) all piled into the car, trucking a leaky cooler full of beer and wine, a dozen sausages, the makings of a panzanella salad and a few picnic supplies. We set out towards the coast – Tomales Bay, to be exact – along a winding, cliffside road that made my vertigo-suffering mother and carsick ridden girls lose a bit of faith in me. I kept insisting, “it’s just around the corner, we’re so close, I promise it will be worth it…” but they couldn’t believe that something could be so good to make this treacherous ride worth the trip. Then we finally got there, and it sunk in: we were in oyster Heaven.

IMG_6355Last weekend the same crew made the trip again, our second year in a row of what will be a long-standing tradition. This time was a little different in that everyone was more prepared. The cooler was in tip-top shape, filled to the brim with light beers and oyster-friendly wines like Rosé, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and sparklers; we bought pre-cooked sausage links from Costco and Fatted Calf that wouldn’t burst over a direct flame; we had a table cloth and ample plastic picnic supplies, including a cutting board, grill tools and an oil brush (we’ll get to that). We were pros now.


Livy requested that I make the same panzanella salad again, and I couldn’t deny that I was already planning to do it. It’s the ideal grill-picnic salad because you can prepare the tomatoes at home and put them in a sealed container to marinate while you make the drive, then put the other ingredients in the cooler to keep them fresh, and use the oil from the marinade to coat the bread before grilling. Perfection!

Panzanella Salad with Fresh Ricotta (serves 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main)

  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 loaf ciabatta bread, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 10 oz arugula
  • 5 ounces fresh ricotta, crumbled

On a cutting board, using the flat side of a chef’s knife, mash the garlic clove to a paste with a pinch of salt; transfer to a large container. Add the tomatoes, onion, vinegar and the 3/4 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover and let the mixture stand at room temperature, stirring a few times, for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours.



Using an oil brush, generously apply the oil from the marinade to each side of the ciabatta. Grill the bread, oil side down, for about 7 minutes, or until brown and crispy, then flip to the other side and grill for 3 more minutes. Once cool, slice into 1½-inch chunks. Transfer the tomato mixture to a large platter and top with arugula and ricotta, then toss to combine. Top with the grilled bread chunks and serve.



This is the perfect salad to serve alongside a tray of four dozen shucked oysters, as a prelude to a heartier protein like sausage or another grilled meat. But if that’s not quite your plan, it also goes well with just about anything you would find at a cook-out. The freshness and acidity is great for a hot summer day, but it’s still substantial enough of a salad to soak up a booze-filled afternoon. You could swap the ricotta for burrata, but personally I think the ricotta keeps it nice and light whereas burrata might make the dish too heavy.


And if you’re an oyster-lover and Northern California is accessible to you, make Hog Island your day trip destination. It’s truly the best place in the world to consume oysters, and my father still has a hard time describing it to people who have never been. It definitely has a Maine-like East Coast vibe that appeals to my family of transplants, but to me it’s as California as California gets.

Frills on Frills on Frills

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Bon Appetit released their ‘comfort food’ issue last week, and it’s very nearly everything. From soups to pantry meals to pastas, I dog-eared 5 pages and 14 recipes. One recipe that stood out was their Reginetti with Savoy Cabbage and Pancetta. Since I was already buying pancetta for my massive batch of minestrone soup, I figured I might as well add a few more ounces and work this recipe into my week’s grocery shop. And then Miriam’s Tuesday night plans suddenly fell through and I invited her over for dinner so that I could share this batch of frilly pasta with someone who would equally appreciate it.


Bon Appetit March 2015, p. 55


Campanelle with Savoy Cabbage and Pancetta (serves 3)

raw pancetta strips

raw pancetta strips

  • 10 oz Campanelle pasta
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 4 oz thinly sliced pancetta
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
  • 1 small head of savoy cabbage, tough ribs removed, leaves torn
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino or parmesan
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • kosher salt


This recipe suggests “Reginetti, or other short pasta.” I didn’t see anything short and frilly enough after checking out the pasta aisle in a few routine grocery stores; I decided to swing by Genova Deli on my way home, because I knew they would have what I was looking for. Sure enough, they carry Barilla’s Campanelle pasta, the perfect substitution for “Reginetti” – whatever that is.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and a pinch of salt and cook for 8 minutes, until very al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking liquid.

cooked pancetta

cooked pancetta

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over a medium flame. Add half of the pancetta and cook for 2 minutes, then turn and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain, then cook the second batch in another tablespoon of olive oil and transfer to paper towels.

Deglaze the pan with dry sherry, then add the cabbage and cook undisturbed until deeply browned in some spots – about 3 minutes. Using tongs, toss the cabbage then cook undisturbed for another 2 minutes. Continue to cook and toss until cabbage is charred in some spots and bright green in others and beginning to wilt. Add butter and thyme and continue to cook, tossing often for 2 minutes.


Add cheese, pasta, and 1 cup pasta cooking liquid and cook, tossing often until sauce is thickened and emulsified and coats pasta, about 5 minutes. Add pancetta and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper, then serve immediately in shallow bowls.


IMG_1267Miriam devoured this pasta; she didn’t even speak for a few minutes other than “mmmm” and “ommmggggg”. After I was finally through with snapping photos, I dug in and joined in the chants of “mmmm”. It was almost like a carbonara, but much lighter and greener and just as delicious. The addition of the sherry not only worked to clear the burnt oil from the pan, but also added some braising liquid to the cabbage. Also, this dish just looks good with all the frills.

Miriam (unaware of the fact that Porter Creek is my favorite Sonoma winery) brought over a bottle of 2012 Porter Creek Timbervine Ranch Syrah. We enjoyed it before, during and after dinner. The wine is soft enough to be enjoyed on its own without food, but made the perfect companion to the pasta dish. With soft earth tones, hints of raspberry and meaty spice it worked well with the salty pancetta and sweet cabbage.

Fresh Leftover Pizza

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It’s beginning to be my favorite food time of the year, filled with persimmons, pomegranate, squash and apples. I officially welcomed fall when I made a big pot of chili last Sunday, despite the fact that it was a hot Indian summer night (and I followed up my two bowls of chili with a walk to a gelato shop). Quite fittingly, today was cold and rainy and I said goodbye to summer by finishing the last of my home-canned heirloom tomato sauce. I also had to get rid of some hot and sweet peppers that had been in my fridge for a while, and I remembered that I had some mozzarella cheese leftover from when I made lasagna. So of course, it had to be a pizza night.


Saucy Pizza with Hot Peppers and Sausage 

  • 1 pizza crustpeppers
  • 1 cup homemade tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
  • 1/3 lb spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1/3 cup chopped red onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4-5 small peppers, sweet and spicy
  • 2 TB shaved parmesan
  • dried oregano
  • fresh basil

My neighbor (who shall be known as Jimmy from this point forth) introduced me to TJ’s par-baked organic pizza crusts, which are an okay substitution for my sorely missed Giorgio’s rolled-out doughs. They come with two per package, and can be found in the freezer-section of TJ’s near the other pizzas. These are perfect for a night when you just need to throw some leftovers on a pizza, which is exactly what I did!

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, and place a baking sheet in the oven to get hot. Meanwhile, brown sausage in a nonstick skillet for about 8 minutes. Drain the oil, wipe out the pan with a paper towel, then coat with a thin layer of cooking spray. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes, then add peppers and continue to sauté over a medium flame for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.



Remove baking pan from oven and cover with parchment paper, then place dough on top of paper. Top pizza dough with tomato sauce, then mozzarella and Gruyère. Add onions and peppers, then sausage, and top with shaved parmesan and a sprinkle of dried oregano. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool for 3-5 minutes before cutting. Top with fresh basil and enjoy!



Between the sausage and the hot peppers, this pizza was pretty damn spicy! It called for a fruity yet powerful Zinfandel, like the 2011 Seghesio Old Vine or the 2012 Ridge Lytton Springs – both from vines that are 90-100 years old in Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. These wines exhibit red fruit with spicy pepper and sweet, firm tannins, and stand up well to spicy, Italian food.

Tuesdays with Kelsey

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Tuesday is officially my favorite day of the week. St. Clair Brown, a new wine kitchen that is just a five minute walk away, hosts a Locals Night on Tuesdays where they offer half off all glasses of wine. And if you’re a member – like me – then you get an additional 10% off everything you order, plus one FREE glass of wine! My bill last Tuesday was only $20 for three glasses of wine and an order of hummus, including an on-the-house sampling of some reds that I had not yet tried. It was actually my third time there in a week… obsessed much? Yes.

photo 2

This Tuesday I ventured out of my neighborhood and took a short drive to Sonoma Plaza with my new coworker, who shall be known as Kitty from this point forth. On Tuesdays the town of Sonoma hosts a farmer’s market in the historical plaza on the square, which is also the only city park in California to allow open containers until dusk. Add some live music and you have the perfect al fresco dinner!



Kitty and I perused some of the farm stands before setting up blanket in the park. I was in awe of the colorful displays of bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and enormous eggplant! After picking up a bounty of fresh produce (along with the yellow tomatoes and squash that Kitty gave me from her garden), we checked out some of the hot food stands. We didn’t get too far before stopping at a Thai stand to pick up some tofu pad thai and fresh tofu spring rolls. The spring rolls were wrapped in Chinese pancakes (the kind you get with moo shu pork), which I loved! The pad thai could have been a little spicier, but I loved the earthy components from the roasted peppers and baked tofu.

pad thai


Next up: coconut lemongrass soup from Chai’s Gourmet. The soup was savory yet sweet, and not too creamy – with big chunks of kabocha squash. Kitty spotted Harvey’s Mini Donut Truck and put an order in for key lime donuts: mini donut holes with sweet key lime glaze and graham cracker crumbs. I had four! And I don’t even like donuts!

photo 5

We enjoyed all of these delicious bites with a bottle of 2012 Archery Summit Premier Cuvée Pinot Noir, a wine from the collection at my new company (and coincidentally, a favorite winery of mine). The Pinot is incredibly versatile, and actually paired pretty well with the pad thai and spring rolls. As for the donuts, I would have paired those with a creamy Chardonnay. They also had a maple bacon donut, which would go perfectly with Syrah! I see a donut-wine-pairing post in my future…

All in the Family

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As some of you know, I tend to gravitate towards small production, family-owned wineries. There are several reasons for this preference: a) small production lends to a higher standard for quality control, b) privacy makes for a more personal visitor’s experience, and c) the sense of authenticity that you feel when each member of the family is doing their part for the winery. I’m constantly seeking out wineries that fit into this category, and some areas of Northern California wine country are more plentiful than others in this regard. For example, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley provide many opportunities to go off the beaten path, whereas you need to dig a little deeper in Napa Valley. Perhaps this is due to the cost of land, or simply the way the history of wineries has evolved in different areas. I’m hesitant to share my list of favorites with the blogosphere if only so that these places can maintain their low-key status, but I’ve vowed to support these little wineries in every way that I can. So here are just a few of my recommendations from my two favorite Sonoma County appellations.

Dry Creek Valley

A. Rafanelli – I’d been hearing about this place for the last year or so, when GGD mentioned that a former co-worker was part of the Rafanelli family. Then when I was in Dry Creek with my parents in February, they saw a sign for the winery and we tried to go, but could not get an appointment at such late notice. So this was one of the first appointments I made when I planned my recent trip to Healdsburg with GGD, Starry and J³. Not only did we get to meet Shelly, the fourth-generation winemaker, but also her father, David, who coined himself the “winemaker emeritus”. It was his grandmother that started the winery with her husband, Alberto Rafanelli, in the early 1900’s when they settled from Italy. After prohibition, their son Americo (David’s father) took on the winemaking duties and moved the winery to where it is today, planting Zinfandel and beginning to sell the wine commercially in the 1970’s. The winery is very private, with a gate code that is given to you upon making an appointment. And it’s no wonder because Shelly lives on the property with her husband and four-year-old son. During our visit they did not have many wines available to taste because most were sold out, but we did get to sample a delicious Cabernet and their upcoming Zinfandel that had just been bottled. Our host, Bob also gave us a tour of the facility and the wine caves, including their event room where Shelly’s son had constructed his own mini vineyard made of wine corks and plastic play trucks – indeed, it runs in the family.

The mini vineyard, built by Shelly's son

The mini A. Rafanelli vineyard, built by Shelly’s son

The wall of family photos at A. Rafaenelli

The wall of family photos at A. Rafaenelli

Preston of Dry Creek – This is a new favorite of mine, and I have a feeling it will continue to be for a long time (especially since my father is a new wine club member). Preston focuses on estate grown Rhone varietals, sustainability and farming. They even make their own olive oil and bread that is available for sampling (and purchase) in the tasting room. The property features beautiful picnic grounds, farm animals, artwork, and some very friendly outdoor cats. The tasting room is brightly colored and artfully decorated with a long bar, usually staffed with 3-4 people, all of whom do a great job providing attention and friendliness during your experience, even when the tasting room gets crowded on the weekends. All of these elements make it a great place to spend the afternoon, but it’s the wine that keeps bringing me back. Their list changes frequently based on what is available, but be sure to sample their Vin Gris (if it’s not already sold out), Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Madame Preston of the white varietals. As for the reds, my favorites are the Cinsaut, Barbera, Carignan and L. Preston. It’s certainly a nice change of pace to sample such unique varietals in the midst of the more common Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir that are abundant in this area.

The Preston tasting room

The Preston tasting room

A selection of Preston wines

A selection of Preston wines

Nalle – Open by appointment only during the week, and to the public on Saturdays, Nalle produces small-lot Chardonnay and Zinfandel. The land has been in the family since the late 1920’s, and is the winery is run by husband and wife duo, Doug and Lee Nalle along with their son and winemaker, Andrew – all of whom live on the property. I have only been to the tasting room when it was open to the public, but I imagine a private appointment is a more personal experience. That being said, I did get to talk with Andrew and Lee during my visit, both of whom were very friendly and informative about the history of the winery and the land surrounding them. The atmosphere is casual and rustic; the wines are served inside a converted barn with a living roof, at a long card table covered with a colorful table cloth, and cases piled up in the backdrop amongst an old basketball hoop mounted on the back wall. As for the wines, I particularly enjoy their Reserve Chardonnay and Vinum Clarum.


Russian River Valley

Scherrer Winery – It was J³ that introduced me to this winery when we attended the Spring Release Party. You would hardly know this place existed if it wasn’t for Google maps, and even they can point you in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. The warehouse space is located at the end of a dirt road off of Ross Station Road in Forestville (the same road that takes you to Iron Horse). On the day we went – probably because there was an event – there was a sign directing us to parking and entrance around the back of the warehouse, though J³ said this wasn’t there the last time they visited. Scherrer typically does tastings by appointment only, hosted by the winemaker, Fred. But they also host four release parties a year, where guests get to sample new wines, tasty bites, and mingle with the family. Fred’s father, Ed was hopping back and forth between two pouring stations of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, while Fred’s wife handled all the administrative duties. I believe their teenage son was helping with packaging the wines that guests purchased, while Fred’s mother was showing and selling beautiful watercolor paintings and cards. Not only do I love how family-oriented this operation is, but also that Fred and Ed both make themselves so accessible to guests. As Fred tells it on their website, he is at the winery every day doing nearly all of the work, with some help from friends and family here and there. And it certainly pays off! Their wines are elegant and true to form; particularly delicious are the Helfer Vineyard Chardonnay, King Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, Old and Mature Zinfandel, and Scherrer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The experience at Scherrer is warm and authentic, and I am so happy to add them to my list of favorites.

Ed and Fred taking a break to pose for a family photo

Ed and Fred Scherrer taking a break to pose for a family photo

Joseph Swan – My father introduced me to this winery many years ago when I first moved to the Bay Area. I remember being the only ones in the barrel room (also acting as tasting room) on a Spring Saturday morning. Fruit flies floated around us while we tasted multiple consecutive vintages of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. Although their wines are some of the best in the valley, there are no pretentious vibes or fancy frills here – just real good wine served by real friendly people. As Joseph Swan said it himself, “there are few more Civilized pleasures in life then good company, good food and good wine.” When he began this winery, he believed passionately that small wineries were the best kind of wineries. Since the wine carried his own name, he insisted on overseeing every aspect of fermentation to bottling, and considered himself personally responsible for every aspect of production. As a pioneer of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, he paved the way for the current winemaker and co-owner, Rod Berglund, who is married to Joe’s daughter and co-owner, Lynn. When visiting the winery, it’s likely that you will get to sample an older vintage of Syrah or Zinfandel, and you will taste the depth of ageability that comes from small crops and persistent care.

Their logo is taken from a Thomas Bewick engraving

The Joseph Swan logo is taken from a Thomas Bewick engraving

Porter Creek – Last but not least, Porter Creek is ultimately my favorite winery in Russian River Valley. Whether it’s the friendly conversation with Jonathan (a fixture in the tasting room), the excellent and affordable Pinot Noir and Carignan that I can’t seem to get enough of, the outdoor deck where the sun is always shining, the award-wining chicken coop that’s tended to by the owner’s granddaughters… how can you not love this place? The winery is run by father and son, George and Alex Davis. George started the winery back in 1977 and handed the reins over to Alex twenty years later. Committed to the growing conditions in Russian River Valley, Porter Creek focuses on hillside grown, vineyard designated wines of Burgundian and Rhone varietals. Their Estate Pinot Noir is, to me, the best valued Pinot in Russian River Valley, and their Carignan is available at several restaurants and wine bars in San Francisco, which is convenient for my palate. Fortunately, they do not require an appointment for small groups, so you can pop in the next time you’re driving down Westside Road. Tell Jonathan I say hi.

The tasting room at Porter Creek

The tasting room at Porter Creek

So there you have it. Some of you serious wine collectors may have heard of a few of these places, and I encourage you to visit them the next time you’re in the area. Bring some new friends, especially if they like small wineries as much as you and I. I’ve intentionally left a few other favorites off this list, but I would be thrilled if you posted some of your favorite family-owned Northern California wineries in the comments section. And soon enough, I’ll let you in on some of my favorite Napa Valley hidden gems. Until then, keep supporting the small guys!


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